Promoting Knowledge Transfer Across Organizational Units

It is challenging to transfer knowledge across organizational units. Several reasons why it is difficult for one unit to benefit from the experience of others have to do with the nature of experience. A unit’s own experience is likely to be more relevant than the experience of other units. As noted previously, differences in member capa- bilities, culture, structure, or technology can render knowledge acquired at a differ- ent organizational unit less relevant than a unit’s own knowledge. Further, a unit’s own direct experience can be easier to interpret than the experience of another unit.

Causal connections are clearer and the link between actions and outcomes can be easier to understand within units than between units. Thus, there are inherent differ-ences in the structure of experience that make it easier for an organization to learn from its own experience than from the experience of others.

These inherent differences in experience notwithstanding, organizations do not fully exploit their opportunities to learn from other organizations or even other parts of their own organization. There are obvious reasons why it is difficult to learn from a competitor, yet even when organizational units are part of the same firm or involved in a cooperative relationship with other firms, knowledge transfer is difficult to achieve (Szulanski, 1996).

The differences documented in the performance of plants that are part of the same firm and produce the same product with similar technology illustrate the difficulty of transferring knowledge across organizational units (Argote & Epple, 1990; Hayes & Clark, 1986). Although it could be argued that some of the knowledge acquired at one plant is not relevant for another, it is hard to explain the dramatic productivity differences between plants on the order of 2:1 by such an argument (Chew, Bresnahan, & Clark, 1990). It could also be argued that these plants do learn from one another— and that the learning results in one plant being superior at one point in time and another plant superior at a different point in time. This argument, however, is incon- sistent with the data, which generally show that the same relative ranking in produc- tivity persists across plants for years (e.g., see Argote & Epple, 1990). Thus, the pattern of results suggests that organizations do not take full advantage of the oppor- tunity to transfer knowledge from one part of their operations to another.

How can organizations promote knowledge transfer across their units? Adler and Cole (1993) described how Nummi, the General Motors-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, California, transferred knowledge through minute standardization and documentation of activities. The standardization increased the relevance of knowl- edge acquired in one part of the establishment for another and the documentation served as a conduit for knowledge to flow from one part of the organization to another. This approach was highly successful in the Nummi environment, where a high volume of a homogeneous product was manufactured.

Benefits of knowledge transfer can be achieved, however, even in decentralized organizations that face heterogeneous environments. For these units, a balance between standardization and local adaptation is key. Rather than regiment what the units should do, providing them opportunities to interact with each other, to learn “best” practices, and to adapt them to local conditions is effective.

Strategies for improving relationships between groups are helpful in facilitating knowledge sharing among them (see Kramer, 1991). For example, providing incen- tives for group members to interact by introducing “superordinate goals” (Sherif, 1958) that require the cooperation of different units will increase knowledge shar- ing. Increasing the salience of higher-level organizational boundaries and empha- sizing the need to compete effectively against other firms can also contribute to knowledge sharing within the organization. These approaches are likely to reduce strong in-group favoritism and induce a categorization of belonging to the same organization.

Providing opportunities to interact through conferences and meetings also fosters knowledge sharing. Interaction with members of other groups is likely to reduce in-group favoritism and provide opportunities for group members to see that knowl- edge acquired by another group may have some relevance to their operation as well. These face-to-face interactions provide opportunities to acquire deep understand- ings of how and why “best practices” work. Thus, members of organizational units can acquire a deep understanding of the practices of their counterparts that enables them to tailor the practices to local conditions by keeping key features and eliminat- ing superficial ones. These opportunities to interact also contribute to the develop- ment of transactive memory systems or meta knowledge of who knows what in the organization that enhance organizational performance (see Chap. 4). Providing opportunities to interact and learn about best practices rather than legislating the adoption of them has the further advantage of providing employees control over their work. In addition to allowing employees to adapt practices to their contexts, the control also has psychological benefits for employees (Tannenbaum, 1968).

Face-to-face methods of communication such as meetings and conferences can be fruitfully supplemented by electronic means. Electronic means of communica- tion have been found to be more effective at augmenting existing relationships than establishing new ones (Kraut, Egido, & Galegher, 1990). Electronic means can be effective at transferring knowledge across organizational units, especially when par- ticipants have experience with the system (Hwang et al., 2012).

In short, a multiplex approach to knowledge transfer is likely to be most effective. Personal contacts and face-to-face communication are rich communication media (Daft & Lengel, 1984) that are particularly well-suited for identifying information to be transferred and acquiring a deep understanding of it. Personal interactions are likely to be most effective early in the transfer process (Dutton & Starbuck, 1979). Once infor- mation has been identified and adapted to the new context, means of communication such as documents, routines, and technology can be very effective. Indeed, if informa- tion is to be transferred on a large and consistent scale, it is important that it eventually be embedded in routines and technology. Newer generations of tools enabled by Web 2.0 technologies facilitate connections between people and thereby are more flexible and adaptive knowledge transfer mechanisms than previous generations of tools.

At a more macro level, embedding an organizational unit in a superordinate rela- tionship such as a community of practice or a consortium is likely to facilitate knowledge transfer. Not only do these relationships lower motivational barriers to knowledge transfer, they also foster communication among members and thereby facilitate the flow of information across groups or departments.

Source: Argote Linda (2013), Organizational Learning: Creating, Retaining and Transferring Knowledge, Springer; 2nd ed. 2013 edition.

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